The Steelheads have packed plenty of hockey into the first four days of camp, taking the ice for five practices since Monday morning and using their ice slot on Wednesday night to hold an intersquad scrimmage. They’ve also had a few more bodies added to the dressing room, with four players joining training camp since Wednesday morning.
The heavy workload and the changing personnel have given Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen the task of monitoring a number of factors as the team prepares for its first game action, a preseason meeting with the Utah Grizzlies tomorrow night at Maverik Center.
“We have a lot of bodies. It’s important to make sure guys still get their reps and we still play at the speed we want to play at,” said Graham. “We’ve thrown a lot at them. I thought the first four practices were very good, and we had a bit of a lull today. That’s not overly surprising considering we had the intersquad game last night. We kept it short and hit what we needed today.”
That intersquad game is a mix of fun and function for the players, who finally get some game action and a chance for bragging rights in the room but are also trying to demonstrate the systems that the coaching staff has been teaching.
The sessions included 4-on-4, 3-on-3, and special teams situations, meaning that players weren’t necessarily employing the full-strength systems the Steelheads will use. But they were able to show other skills and smarts to the coaches.
“It was very revealing. We saw guys trying to execute some of the things we want to accomplish in game situations, which was nice to see,” said Graham. “To see guys trying to implement those things when we’re not barking at them was pretty good. The pace and communication were really good, which shows guys are clicking and getting along.”
It was also a valuable opportunity for the coaches to learn more about their players, and to do so from a different vantage point. Graham and Sheen sat high above the ice to evaluate the scrimmage, rather than watching from behind the bench.
“It’s nice to get above the ice surface. When we run practice we try to make sure everything goes smoothly and, to be perfectly honest, it can be difficult to get a fair evaluation of everyone at ice level,” said Graham. “Primarily we were looking at different combinations for 4-on-4, 3-on-3, and special teams situations and to see how the different pieces fit in the puzzle.”
The evening also allows serves as a nice dry rehearsal for the players in terms of preparing themselves to play a game.
“During the season we play Wednesday nights, so last night was our intersquad game. Guys had the music going and went through their dynamic warmups, and you see a level of intensity that is higher than you see in morning practices.”
Graham will wait for his first game-action look at three players, with Max French, Steve McParland, and Shane Hanna joining the team for their first practice on Thursday morning. Justin Parizek had his first ice time with the team in Wednesday’s morning practice and evening scrimmage. Those players will have some quick learning to do, but they do have skill sets that the coaches believe will adapt quickly to Idaho’s style.
“French and Hanna come from Texas so they’ve been doing a lot of the things we’ve been doing. Parizek was in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and they play fast, too. We’re not reinventing the game over here, so there will be a few adjustments here and there but they have been doing well,” said Graham.
“McParland is out here and excited. He’s been excited all summer and brought some good energy to the ice today. I thought he was one of the few who stood out today, with some good shots and some nice goals on the power play.”
As useful as the scrimmage was and as intense as practices have been, Friday will serve as the team’s first test in full-speed game action. It’s an important showcase for the team to find out where the players are in the learning process, and for players fighting for a roster spot to make an impression.
Having said that, perfection isn’t necessarily the target for Graham.
“I think we want to be aggressive. We want to play fast and not overthink things,” said Graham. “We’ll tighten the screws systematically as the season develops, but it’s important tomorrow that we’re not robots out there trying to think where X goes or where Y goes.”
“We’ve been working on it for a week, so hopefully some of it comes second nature. But more importantly, let’s make mistakes aggressively. We’re a fast team and we can cover for each other so let’s make sure we are using our strengths.”
For fans, players, and coaches alike, Friday marks a special night. Though the game will not count in the standings and the goals won’t be logged in the record books, meaningful competitive hockey is back once again.
“Guys have been training hard for the better part of six months. We’re excited as an organization for the team we’ve put together and tomorrow is Day 1,” said Graham. “We want to win every game that we step on the ice for. I think there’s a sense of urgency and excitement, and that’s a good thing.”